The History of the Mafia in Connecticut

 

For New Haven gangster Salvatore “Midge Renault” Annunziato (at left), 1950s New Haven was a paradise.

When the portly mobster was arrested for assault, New Haven’s sitting congressman Albert Cretella stepped forward to defend him, winning an acquittal.

Always a terrible driver, Annunziato was constantly losing his license. Not to worry. The city’s powerful Democratic Town Committee Chairman Arthur T. Barbieri wrote letters to state officials asking them to restore his driving privileges.

A former boxer—Midge Renault was his ring name—Annunziato beat up men with impunity, but victims and witnesses were almost always too terrified to testify. When they weren’t, juries acquitted him and judges were lenient.

If Annunziato did go to jail, it was hardly punishment at all. His wife or restaurants delivered all his meals, and he slept in the prison infirmary instead of a cell. He even was able to smuggle in liquor and provide gambling for fellow inmates—charging a fee and keeping the profits. Sometimes, his jailers even let him out for the night.   

And then there was the union. As business agent for the state’s only heavy-equipment operator local, Annunziato reaped a fortune in kickbacks and bribes from workers and contractors.

The Nutmeg State was Annunziato's oyster. And he was far from alone.
 

Connecticut of the 1950s and 1960s was lousy with mobsters making a mint from labor racketeering, illegal gambling, loan sharking and trash hauling. The organization also burrowed into legitimate businesses, including used cars, restaurants, nightclubs and produce.

Anything that was illegal, seasonal or in short supply was fair game. Fireworks—long banned by the state—Easter flowers, grapes and watermelons all at one time lined the Mob’s pocket.  

Almost nothing was beyond the organization’s reach and influence.

Six decades later, Annunziato and virtually all of his contemporaries are gone, of course. The once untouchable Mafia they belonged to is a desiccated shadow of its former self, undone by prosecutions, internecine warfare, legalized gambling, easier credit and a changed culture.

But secrets remain. No major Mafia figure here has ever turned state’s evidence. The state’s most powerful gangsters were assassinated before they could be tried for racketeering, and all their murders—save one—remain unsolved. Other big-time mobsters eluded prosecution and died in their beds.

The following, which is drawn from thousands of pages of FBI and other files, newspaper articles and dozens of interviews, seeks to fill in some of the blanks, chronicling the rise and fall of a secret criminal enterprise that once wielded huge influence in the Land of Steady Habits.
 

Beginnings
Around 1900, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe began flooding into Connecticut, providing cheap labor to fuel its booming factories. The state’s cities exploded, doubling and tripling their populations with new arrivals speaking Italian, Polish, Yiddish and other languages.

The changes unnerved the state’s Yankees, descendents of the Puritans who settled Connecticut in the 1600s. They questioned the newcomers’ willingness and ability to assimilate, and loathed their Catholicism and Judaism. The world that they and their forefathers had built was disappearing, they feared.

By the 1920s, nativist fears in Connecticut, as in the nation at large, reached a fever pitch. Ethnic and religious prejudice was rampant. Ku Klux Klan membership skyrocketed, and the racist organization held regular cross burnings throughout the state. One nativist warned at a meeting in Meriden that the common expression “mac” as in “How are you, mac?” was code for “Make America Catholic.”

Everything urban and ethnic became suspect, including prize fighting, dancing and especially liquor. When the nation introduced Prohibition in 1920, old-line Yankees applauded.
But the state’s many immigrants scoffed. They were not going to give up drinking alcohol. Indeed, Connecticut and Rhode Island were the only of the then 48 states never to ratify the 18th Amendment outlawing the manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating beverages.

Someone had to quench the state’s thirst. That demand created gangs that would eventually evolve into the Mafia. Enforcement of the law soon became a joke, especially in the state’s immigrant-heavy big cities.

One New Haven gang would make national headlines just as Prohibition was going into effect. At Christmas in 1919, it distributed wood alcohol-laced liquor that killed dozens in Connecticut and Massachusetts. In a harbinger of the corruption to come, the gang distributed the “murder whiskey,” as the newspapers dubbed it, from the back door of a café just yards away from the police station.   

Prohibition, meanwhile, created opportunities for men like Salvatore Annunziato’s father Francesco, a struggling immigrant from the Naples region. A day laborer and factory worker, he began brewing and selling bathtub gin to help support his wife and what would eventually be 10 children.

New Haven soon became the center of the state’s liquor trade.  
 

 

No Family for Connecticut
In the early 1930s, the American Mafia was organized into families, one for each region and five in New York City. Connecticut, as is often the case, found itself divided between New York and Boston. Without its own family, New York and New England mobsters vie for influence in the state to this day.

At some point in the 1930s, the New Jersey wing of the New York-based Genovese crime family, the largest, most powerful and most secretive of the city’s five Mafia groups, became the dominant force in New Haven. Why is unclear, although some say it came to control the distribution of sugar needed to make bootleg liquor.

The family’s Springfield, Mass., wing would later move south into the Hartford area, even establishing an unlikely outpost in Old Saybrook, where its longtime leader Frank “Skyball” Scibelli summered.

When Prohibition ended, the Mob kept going, coming to dominate illegal gambling. There was no lottery so the Mafia created one. Called “the numbers,” people could bet as little as a penny. It provided a huge and steady source of income for the Mob until the state introduced a lottery in the early 1970s.

The Mob also came to control boxing, which was hugely popular in 1930s Connecticut. The New Haven Arena, as well as venues in Waterbury, Hartford and Norwich, had fight nights several times a month.

It was in the ring that Salvatore Annunziato became Midge Renault. Standing just 5-foot-3 and weighing only about 110 pounds, Annunziato was nicknamed “Midget,” which eventually evolved into “Midge.” Renault came from his brother who boxed under the name Jack Renault.

Annunziato was more street fighter than boxer—“He’d hit you with a stool if he could,” recalled his brother-in-law—and endured horrific beatings from skilled opponents. But his time in the ring, which ended after his brother punched a state boxing official, would prepare him for his future with the Mob.

With World War II came gasoline rationing and a new racket. Gangsters became rich selling counterfeit ration tickets around the state. Annunziato, who avoided military service by starting a brawl at an induction center, got his start with ration tickets, distributing them in the Naugatuck Valley.

The 1940s Mob had influence in other areas as well. In 1944, Arthur Barbieri, who would one day become New Haven’s Democratic chairman, was an Army lieutenant about to be shipped overseas.

One day in February, he and his brother-in-law traveled to Wethersfield prison to meet with his brother-law’s uncle, Ralph Mele, an infamous New Haven mobster who had engineered the murder of a father and son in Woodbridge about 10 years before. The next day, Barbieri was discharged from the army, sparing him combat in Europe that would kill many in his unit.

Mele wasn’t the only big-time mobster at Wethersfield. In the late 1940s, Charles “The Blade” Tourine landed there after attempting to bribe a state policeman. Tourine was a powerful member of the Genovese family’s New Jersey wing. A genius with numbers in spite of being illiterate, he would one day run mob casinos in Cuba, the Caribbean and England. In the late 1970s, the congressional committee investigating John F. Kennedy’s assassination would try and fail to get his testimony.

While in prison, Tourine took Annunziato, who had been convicted of robbing a card game, under his wing. Before long, Annunziato would have the chance to prove himself.
 

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Changing of the Guard
Once out on probation, Mele came to dominate New Haven’s underworld, operating a multistate illegal lottery.

But the Mob had a problem. In 1950, U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee had convened a commission on organized crime that was grilling mobsters from across the United States. Broadcast live on television, the hearings mesmerized the nation.

The Mob wanted to keep things quiet during the hearings, but Mele wanted to keep expanding. And he’d angered a Maine gangster by trying to expand into his territory.

On March 21, 1951, Mele was taken for a ride and found shot to death on an isolated road in New Haven’s East Rock Park. The murder created a frenzy, sparking questions at the Kefauver hearings and a warning from syndicated newspaper columnist Walter Winchell that a gang war was brewing in Connecticut, but it was never solved.

Soon, however, word was out—Annunziato was the prime suspect. Soon after, the street fighter allegedly received rewards: Membership in the Genovese crime family and, thanks to Tourine, a job as business agent of the International Brotherhood of Operating Engineers Local 478.

But Annunziato would have to share New Haven.

Ralph “Whitey” Tropiano was a New Haven native who’d moved to Brooklyn as a boy and was rumored to have been a hit man for the notorious “Murder Inc.” hit squad of the late 1930s. His father worked at the New Haven café that sold the “murder whiskey” back in 1919.

In the late 1940s, Tropiano was arrested for two murders in New York City, but the charges were mysteriously dropped.

Years later, an FBI informant said that Tropiano and his crew of freelance gangsters had been caught robbing Mob gambling operations. He was given a choice: Kill your crew or be killed. Over the next 18 months, a dozen members of his crew turned up dead on the streets of Brooklyn. The killings made banner headlines and confounded local cops.
Tropiano got off, the informant said, by paying a homicide detective $20,000 to kill a witness.

The Mob needed one more thing. Willie Moretti, boss of the Genovese family’s New Jersey wing, was suffering from syphilis and saying dangerous things during his testimony before the Kefauver Commission. He needed to go.

On Oct. 4, 1951, four men met Moretti for lunch and shot him dead. Tropiano was widely believed within the mafia to have been one of the trigger men, informants told the FBI. His reward, word within the mob went: New Haven.

For the next 30 years, Tropiano, a member of New York’s Colombo crime family, shared New Haven with Annunziato in spite of a mutual hatred.
 

 

Wide Open Gambling
In 1953, New Haven elected a new Democratic mayor, Richard C. Lee. Ralph Mele’s old friend Arthur Barbieri was Democratic Town Committee chairman. Barbieri had worked at Golden Crest Ice Cream, which also had supposedly employed Mele. Investigators concluded that the business was a front for Mele’s illegal gambling operation.

Now, the Mob had an ally in New Haven city government. An informant told the FBI that Barbieri gave the word for “wide open gambling” in the city after Lee took office.

Lee had been elected to transform New Haven. Under his leadership, the city would garner more federal urban renewal money per capita than any community in the nation. Lee would use that money to raze entire neighborhoods and transform downtown.

While he didn’t intend to, Lee made the mob rich. The construction work was a gold mine for Annunziato and the operating engineers. Adding to the bonanza was the building of Interstate-95, the first leg of the nation’s interstate highway system.

While Annunziato ran the unions, Tropiano took care of the numbers and shook down bookies.

Tropiano kept a low profile, but Annunziato didn’t. He was arrested on an almost monthly basis for everything from public drunkenness to disorderly conduct to assault. In the mid-1950s, he and his thugs wrecked two restaurants in a suspected scheme to force the owners to sell at rock-bottom prices. One of the brawls, at a Milford restaurant, got so out of control that the police called in the fire department for reinforcements.

But Annunziato had another side that inspired fierce loyalty and even love. He was pathologically generous, routinely handing out $100 bills to friends and acquaintances, and $50 bills to kids. If he knew a person at a restaurant, he’d immediately pay their bill. He would lend people his car or get them jobs at the drop of a hat. Annunziato, it was said by some, had “a heart of gold.”

Annunziato eventually had to serve a year in prison for one of the restaurant incidents, but instead of going to the state prison in Wethersfield, he was allowed to do his time at the Whalley Avenue jail in New Haven. There, he was able to bring in all his meals, and go out at night. He was even reported to have assaulted the son of the New Haven county sheriff who ran the jail.

But it couldn’t last forever. The stint in jail cost him his job at the union. He would remain a power behind the scenes until forced out for good in the late 1960s.

When the FBI began cracking down on the mob in the late 1950s, both Annunziato and Tropiano were targeted.
 

Decline
In 1960, the federal government won a conviction of Annunziato in the bribing of an I-95 contractor. It was the beginning of a long decline for the rotund mobster, exacerbated by the death of his 15-year-old son, who was accidentally struck and killed by a car.

His drinking worsened and he grew more violent and unpredictable. He returned to prison in the mid-1960s after shooting a man in a New Haven tavern.
While Annunziato made more headlines, Tropiano was suspected in one of the Elm City’s most brutal underworld murders. In 1962, a small-time tough named Thomas “Pinocchio” Rispoli punched Tropiano in a gambling dispute.

Less than two weeks later, Rispoli’s battered, bullet-riddled body was discovered in a shallow grave in the dirt basement of an abandoned Branford home. In spite of an intensive investigation, no arrest was ever made.

Tropiano was later convicted of trying to bribe police officers to protect a gambling operation and then of trying to monopolize the region’s trash-hauling industry.
By the late 1960s, the New Haven underworld was up for grabs, and an Irish bank robber tried to step into the breach.

Edmund Devlin put together a crew of Italian and Irish toughs who became one of the nation’s most successful bank robbery gangs up to that time. The gang stole an estimated $500,000 to $1 million (worth $3-$6 million today), most of which was never recovered.

With Annunziato fresh out of prison in 1968, the two gangs fought for control of New Haven’s rackets. The war pitted young men who had grown up together against each other.
It ended in late 1968 with the murder of Richard Biondi, Annunziato’s trusted hit man, and Annunziato’s return to prison. Annunziato and his son Frank were also later convicted of the attempted murder of a member of Devlin’s gang.

Devlin, meanwhile, made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list before being caught and sent to federal prison, where he died of a heart attack in 1977. He was just 46.
undercover

In the mid-1970s, the FBI inserted an undercover agent into the New Haven underworld. The agent soon learned the extent and depth of the mob’s power in the Elm City. He met numerous local hoodlums, gained entrance to a Mob-run craps game with a $50,000 bankroll and witnessed mobsters, politicians and police hobnobbing like old friends at a social event.

“It has been ascertained that there is an intertwine between criminal elements and law enforcement,” an FBI report said of New Haven. “Further the criminal element all appears to have grown up together or are related to each other in some way by either blood relationship or close companionship over the years.”

One night, the agent accompanied a local gangster (his name is blacked out of FBI documents) to a downtown New Haven hotel, where the agent watched him berate and rough up recently resigned Democratic Town Committee chairman Arthur Barbieri. The mobster was angry about Barbieri’s decision to step down.

The gangster told Barbieri that his people “had spent a lot of money” on Barbieri.  He was “not to make any decisions without [the gangster’s] prior okay,” according to FBI files.
The FBI later removed the agent and no arrests were ever made.
 

 

The Wild Guy
With both Annunziato and Tropiano out of circulation, a new force appeared on the scene. William “Billy” Grasso had been Tropiano’s protégé for years. So unpredictable and mean, Grasso was nicknamed “The Wild Guy.” When the pair went to prison for garbage racketeering, Grasso met New England crime boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca.

Patriarca was a legend in organized-crime circles, an especially ruthless and vicious leader. He took Grasso under his wing. When Grasso returned to New Haven, he was ready to make a move.

In 1974, a year after he came back, his biggest rival, Gambino family member John “Slew” Palmieri, was killed by a car bomb in a case that was never solved.

The Mob was about to enter an especially bloody phase.
 

The Final Act
When Annunziato got out of prison in 1978, he was soon out of control once again. He was indicted for racketeering and arrested for shooting a man on a New Haven street. On June 19, 1979, his old friend Bridgeport mobster Thomas “The Blond” Vastano arrived at Annunziato’s East Haven home to pick him up for a ride.

Annunziato was never seen or heard from again. His son Frank died in 1984 at age 40 from liver failure caused by drug addiction.

Less than a year later, Vastano was dead, shot to death in the driveway of his Stratford home. Neither killing has ever been solved.

Tropiano, meanwhile, had not done well in prison. In 1972, he decided to talk to the FBI, identifying 21 living and dead Mafia members, including the bosses of the Naugatuck Valley and Waterbury factions. He blamed Grasso for his incarceration and expressed disillusionment with the Mob, even while denying membership.

When the FBI tried to talk to him again in later years, he refused.

Finally out of prison in the late 1970s, Tropiano settled on a comeback that brought him into conflict with Grasso. In June 1980, the 68-year-old was walking on a Brooklyn street with a relative when two men got out of a car and shot him dead. The case, like so many Mob-related deaths, remains unsolved.

A year later, Bridgeport saw its most dramatic Mob murder in a generation. Gambino family member Frank Piccolo, a power in the group’s Connecticut wing, was shot to death in a phone booth on a Bridgeport Street.

Another top Fairfield County mobster, Gambino family member Thomas “The Enforcer” DeBrizzi , was found frozen solid and shot to death in the trunk of a car in 1988.
Grasso, meanwhile, kept rising. Raymond Patriarca died in 1984, but left Grasso a power in the family. By the late 1980s, he was underboss, or second in command, of the Patriarca family.

An especially violent, capricious mobster, Grasso was universally hated by his men. “When Billy talked, guys vibrated,” recalled one former FBI agent.

In 1989, the Patriarca family went to war with itself. Sick of Grasso’s greed and ruthlessness, members of his crew lured him into a van, shot him in the back of a head and dumped his body in a Wethersfield meadow.

“It’s over,” said his killer Gaetano Milano of East Longmeadow, Mass. (who remains incarcerated for the murder), to his fellow conspirators. His words proved truer than he realized.

About a year later, federal prosecutors indicted numerous Patriarca members and associates, including Milano. All the exposure and a 1991 trial badly damaged the Mafia in the state, sapping much of its remaining power and influence.

While the Mob’s influence and power are much reduced, it is far from dead in Connecticut. Recent prosecutions show the crime families’ continued involvement in trash racketeering and gambling.

In the biggest Mob-connected case of recent years, Danbury garbage mogul James Galante pleaded guilty in 2008 to multiple racketeering charges in a wide-ranging, price-fixing scheme tied to the Genovese crime family. He was sentenced to 87 months in prison.

Law-enforcement authorities, meanwhile, periodically break up Mob gambling rings. Last summer, for example, a North Haven man pleaded guilty to helping run a Gambino crime family sports-betting and card-game operation that stretched from Stamford to New Haven. He was one of 19 reputed Mob associates indicted in the case.

Almost a century after it took root, the Mob endures largely under radar in the Nutmeg State. The days when a swaggering gangster like Salvatore Annunziato could openly run a union, get let out of prison at night or have a sitting congressman defend him in court are long gone.
 

The History of the Mafia in Connecticut

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